Thursday, April 03, 2003


- J. C. Whittaker -

Chapter Eleven

Dawn of our 18th day found me in the stern of our raft brooding in a half wakeful stupor. Our morale, I was thinking, had sunk just about as low as it could go. Nothing could depress us further. And, as usual, I was wrong.

During that day, the day after, and the 20th day we were dealt such crushin blows that had it not been for the fortitude built up in hours of prayer I think we all would have abandoned hope. It was my newly found faith in God that sustained me. Of this I am sure.

As the dawn came up I waired for a stirring of wind that would tell me we were free of the doldrums in which we had been stuck more than three days while we grew steadily weaker.

No wind stirred; not even a breeze. The east flamed up like a fantastic forest fire, heralding another scorching day. I shouted imprecations at the sun before it even appeared. the sun and the glaring sea had begun to take on personality. I hated them both as I would hate a human enemy.

The sun peeped over the rim and paused a second or two to leer at us. then it bounded into the sky. the other fellows aroused in their rafts and stretched themselves weakly.

The morning water ration was handed around. An inch in the bottom of the flare shell. I notice the dole was growing smaller. I didn't care much at that writing. The water tasted like hell and only made me thirstier.

At the prayer service I reminded God of the miracle of the rain on the 13th day. I prayed as never before for rescur; not just for water or food, but to be picked up. Memory of the rain miracle seemed to bear me up. As the service closed with the Lord's prayer, which I often led now, something of my old fortitude had returned. I felt that rescue was coming. I prayed again that I might live to see it.

How that day passed I don't know. The sun climbed and the heat became almost unbearabel. At noon the daily round of delirious shouts began. There were snatches of crazy song. By this time nearly all of us were holding long and serious conversations with people who weren't there. Jim Blood came up from Davy Jones' locker to talk to me a while.

I could hear his voice, but could not see him. He explained tht in daylight and on the surface he had to be invisible. It was not very satisfactory. Then I heard a voice that made me jump. It was my son, Thomas, talking to me. When I left home he had been attached to a naval unit stationed in San Francisco.

"What are you doing out here, Tom?" I asked. When did you leave San Francisco?"

"I was sent to sea over two weeks ago, Dad," he said. "You see - we were sunk. And seeing I was out here I thought I'd just drop in and see how you are getting along."

I heard the voice no more and although I called out again and again I could get no answer. That incident of delirium bedeviled me from then on until I could communicate with my wife and family and be assured that everyone was well. I had heard of persons recently dead appearing to relatives or near friends. And in my abject state on that 18th day adrift I would have believed anything.

After an eternity of blinding agony the sun slid toward the western rim and the heat let up. And then it happened; the thing that almost wrecked us all.

We had had our evening dole of water and were sitting silent. I happened to be looking at Bill Cherry. Suddenly there was a sort of wild look in his eyes.

"I hear an engine!" he yelled. "I hear an engine! Hear it?"

We looked sadly at one another and said nothing. Then, in an instant, like jacks-in-the-box, we all were staring rigidly into the sky.

We ALL heard it; a deep toned roar, muted by distance. Rickenbacker and Cherry saw it at the same time; a plane silohouetted against a low cloud bank in the west and coming in our general direction.

It was a pontoon scout plane, resembling the United States Navy Kingfisher. It occurred to us that it might be a Jap plane. The Japs have one that at that distance resemble the Kingfisher.

But we nearly went crazy - maybe I should say crazier - just the same. It meant we were getting into the vicinity of an air base. Somewhere, not far over the rim, was an outpost of civilization.

The plane was coming fast and we soon could see that its course would take it past us at least three miles distant. You could feel the spontaneous thought: "The flares! Get the flares!"

The flares. It would have taken quite some getting to pick the four flares and the three Very pistols off the ocean floor where they had gone on the eighth day when our raft upset during the squall. Realization of this followed the thought with sickening sadness.

But we hadn't given up yet. We shouted and waved. Cherry wigwagged with his undershirt sail. We prayed. The plane droned on about five miles off. We knew we hadn't been seen.

If some of us didn't weep it was only because there was not enough moisture available in our bodies for tears. Tomblike silence and gloom shrouded our group. But it didn't last long. Rickenbacker was at least two jumps ahead.

I think the cussing Rick unleashed now was the masterpiece of his career. In about a minute he had most of the gang roaring mad. then he got under their skins individually.

He finished up with a broadside at the whole bunch. The psychological effect he produced was just what he had been hoping for. It didn't improve his personal popularity then, but that wasn't his aim. The morale of his companions was all that interested Rick.

With the blankety blanks deleted, here is what he said in effect: That if a plane had come once it would come again. That if there was one plane there were many. If we had moved this close to their base we would move closer. Good things were coming. A MAN would have the courage, the patience, the faith to wait for them.

As if to back up his words there was a puff of wind and then another. A strong, steady breeze followed. Bill Cherry hoisted his undershirt on the two oars. We moved. We were out of the doldrums.

In the morning - our 19th day adrift - it rained. It was not much of a rain and we couldn't store any water. We all got a good sluicing down, however, and we slaked our thirst.

And the rain served yet another purpose. DeAngelis and Bartek, it developed, had been driven to drinking salt water during their delirious sufferings in the doldrums, just as Alex Kaczmarczyk had done shortly before he died. Both now got enough fresh water to flush out the salt.

I am getting just a little ahead of my story here. The sight of the plane, coupled with the rising wind on the 18th night, made sleep an impossibility. I felt that the plane and the wind were signs from God that rescue was not far away.

So it was that I now reviewed mentally the things that God had done for me since that day so long ago when our gallant Flying Fortress disappeared beneath the waves. I thought of the answers I had received to prayer. But most of all I thought of the more important thing - that I had learned to pray. And that I had found my God and had not turned away from Him a stranger.

As I sat pondering, while the rafts lsid over the luminous waves, I was drenched by chilling spray and for once neither noticed it nor minded when I found myself soaked through and through.

Our sufferings were not ended and I didn't try to kid myself that they were. I was weaker from hunger than I ever had been in my life. I was so thirsty my throat ached. Yet within me there was a lift that made these other things seem trivial. I prayed - a prayer of thanksgiving.

Jimmy Reynolds moaned in his sleep and rolled about at his end of the raft. That brought me back to "hard reality." the boy had been failing rapidly in the last few days. I hoped and I prayed he would not share Alex's fate; that the rescue would be in time.

Shortly after dawn of the 19th day the scout plane came over again. It was flying at about 1,200 feet and it missed us by three miles. The ship came back in the afternoon at the same height, but we were closer to its course this time. It was obvious now that it was flying regular patrol duty.

Each time it appeared we almost went out of our heads with excitement. Its pilot still failed to see us. And each time, before we could settle into black despond, Rickenbacker was right on the job, working the lads into such fury that the ship became a minor matter.

This was one of the occasions when I was sure the fellows were going to live if only to spite Rick.

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